ACT San Francisco
In Tom Stoppard's world, Art (with a capital A) doesn't stand around looking pretty. Art gets up and starts shoving. It demands a place in real life. "Travesties," his 1974 play, which has been revived to open the American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco's, 40th Anniversary season, stars several interesting actors, who offer interesting performances. As a whole, however, the rant of Stoppard's historical "what if" exceeds the impact of its rapid-fire words. There are multiple layers of meaning here, ideas quickly tossed off, bombs of genius in a battlefield of intellect. It's certainly no love story.
In "Travesties", Art, as protagonist, is engaged in a knock-down, drag-out against Politics. The setting is World War 1 Zurich. The players are Lenin, James Joyce and DaDa Movement founder, Tristan Tzara who all did, in fact, find themselves in Switzerland in 1917. Company Artistic director Carey Perloff also directed this production, and can qualify as a Stoppard groupie, having presented and directed four of the playwright's works during her term in office. She must be a word person, happy with Stoppard's eloquent intellect, a lava that never stops, play after play. Here, Stoppard offers up red meat in lite (comedy) form. The press release calls the play a "vaudevillian romp", but the truth is, only the most brainy in a Saturday night crowd, after a few cosmopolitans and a steak, is liable to jump on Stoppard's intellectual bronco and stay put. The pace is quick, the references are sometimes obscure, the action is a little illogical. Stoppard's game is to throw out ideas in argument form, to see what sticks and make a drama out of it. It is a vigorous, hyper-kinetic, synapse-wild technique and as an audience member, you are kept didactically and otherwise off-center.
Perloff's cast in San Francisco includes Canadian actor, Geordie Johnson as Henry Carr, the British consulate worker who narrates , in a manner of speaking, from old age. As a younger man, in scenes with Lenin, Tzara and Joyce, he is officious and bland, both British and consular, but he also represents the majority, the Swiss of the world, people who never take a stand, who are not touched by genius, for whom 1917 never arrives. It is a role James Stewart could have played in the movies.
Geoff Hoyle, who plays Lenin and another comic role as a manservant for Henry Carr, is not the only physical comedian here, but his is effective and a relief as a strutting Lenin after so much chatter from the boring Carr. Joan Mankin, an ACT regular character actress, is similarly embodied and effective as Lenin's sidekick. As Da-Da founder Tristan Tzara, Gregory Wallace dances around a little in concept-land, a kind of artsy/queenie version of revolt, but also a physical representation of the things James Joyce was ultimately doing on the page. Anthony Fusco played the Irish writer with a suitable vacancy, a self-obsessed detachment from events transpiring all around. Rene Augesen, as Gwendolen, and Allison jean White as the librarian Cecily, offered feminine distraction.
Travesties by Tom Stoppard. Directed by Carey Perloff. Sept 14-Oct 15, 2006. American Conservatory Theater, San Francisco.
Michael Wade Simpson